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With up to 83 aromatic notes, the flavor of pomegranate blends the syrupy sweetness of grape, the refreshing astringency of cranberry, and the cooling quality of lemon. A hint of its juice and the sound of its name can command a premium price, and bestow superfood status to any dish with which it’s associated.
If culinary pleasure isn’t enough, the benefits for gardeners and orchardists are plentiful. Pomegranates bear early and suffer from few diseases or pests. For those searching out a niche market, pomegranates come in more than 1,000 diverse cultivars, most of which aren’t commercially available.
But, to the frustration of pomegranate lovers in North America, more than a century of efforts have yet to lift it to staple fruit status. For many in the Western world, the pomegranate remains an edible puzzle — seemingly frustrating and difficult to solve — that punishes every wrong move with an indelible spritz of red juice. But the truth is, pomegranates are actually quite simple — both to grow and to eat — if you take a few minutes to learn their secrets.
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Beyond a sensitivity to cold temperatures (and humidity, with some cultivars), pomegranates have few issues or special requirements. Pomegranate fruit has a tough rind, so animals and insects tend to leave it alone. The plants rarely require spraying, and pruning needs are minimal. They do best in well-draining, loamy soil, but will tolerate salinity, excessive calcium, pollution, drought, and dampness like champs. They can even be watered with raw sewage.
For many growers, pomegranates are simply a lesson in microclimates and cultivar selection. If you live in Zone 7b or below, look for cold-hardy cultivars, such as ‘Haku Botan’ or ‘Salavatski.’ Some cold-tolerant cultivars have been reported to withstand temperatures as low as minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit. And though most pomegranates can withstand heat upward of 118 degrees, humidity adversely affects some cultivars, which has been a factor in preventing commercial production in the southern U.S. If you live in a particularly humid climate, select plants that have been bred for resistance, such as ‘Salavatski.’
Most often, pomegranate plants are grown from rooted cuttings, which produce a true copy of the parent plant. A cutting can generally be taken during any time of the year, as long as it’s from a vigorous, healthy plant that’s at least 1 year old. (Cuttings are often taken from clippings of unwanted suckers, or from branches pruned to open the canopy.) Cuttings should be 6 to 10 inches long and 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Because it’s difficult to distinguish the top from the bottom of a pomegranate cutting, immediately mark one end with a pen or crayon, or cut the top at an angle. While most pomegranates are self-fertile, the best fruit set requires cross-pollination, so select cuttings from at least two different cultivars.
To encourage rooting, scrape the bark off the bottom 1/2 inch of each cutting, and then dip them in a rooting hormone. Plant them in a small container — individual pots or seed-starting flats work nicely — with a well-draining rooting medium, such as a mix of perlite and vermiculite. Make sure at least one node of each cutting is fully inserted into the medium.
Place your cuttings in a warm place, ideally 75 to 80 degrees, and out of direct sunlight. A heating pad placed underneath the cuttings can help maintain a steady temperature.
If you have a misting system in place, set it to mist your cuttings for 10 seconds every 20 minutes. Alternatively, you can fashion a mini-greenhouse out of a clear container placed over the cuttings to provide a humid climate. With this setup, you’ll need to water carefully, just enough to keep the environment damp, but not soggy.
Rooting should take place in 1 to 2 months. Once their roots are established, transfer the plants to quart-sized nursery pots until they’re ready to plant outdoors in spring, after any chance of frost has passed.
Planting and Care
Plan to plant your pomegranates in a spot with full sun exposure. If you’re located in a colder area, you’ll have the most success if you create a microclimate for your plants by placing them near a wall or building. Alternatively, a pomegranate can be grown in a large pot and brought inside during winter. Pomegranates naturally grow as bushes, but can be pruned into single-trunk trees if desired. Both forms are quite attractive, so planning for landscape design is also worthwhile.
Once you’ve selected a site, dig a hole about three times the size of the plant, approximately 2 to 3 feet in diameter and 1 to 2 feet deep. Add a mix of manure, mulch, or compost to improve the soil, and water incrementally when filling the hole. Water and fertilizer can make a dramatic difference in the early growth of a new plant, and encourage it to fruit years earlier than it might otherwise.
Pomegranates tolerate a wide range of soil pH levels, but prefer a pH between 5.5 and 7.2. For best results, fertilize your plants once a year in fall or winter with compost or manure. Heavy monthly fertilizing can also help a plant that’s died back recover much quicker. However, in colder areas, avoid stimulating plants much past August, or they may continue to grow when they should be going dormant, which is crucial to winter survival.
With the exception of specimens grown as single-trunk trees, which demand annual sucker removal, pomegranates require minimal maintenance beyond removing dead or awkward wood. General pruning for fruit productivity should be done with discretion to maintain a graceful, weeping form. Prune cautiously in Zones 7b and below, taking care to leave most new basal growth for winter survival and fruit production the following year.
Pomegranates will produce fruit in less-than-ideal conditions, but, like most plants, respond best in their ideal environment. In Zones 8b to 10, with the correct care, they can flower and set fruit multiple times a year.
Pomegranates in the Kitchen
While the sweet-tart flavor of most pomegranates grown in America is excellent without other ingredients, the seeds are so versatile for cooking that they might as well be considered a condiment, as they were by Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II almost 3,000 years ago. Sprinkle a few seeds on top of a cake, in a bowl of granola cereal, on fish, or on a salad. Their bursting texture and tangy flavor make them a favorite for dips, such as guacamole and queso. And because the seeds’ fleshy layer absorbs liquid and aromas, they mingle well in uncooked dishes, such as a fresh fruit tart, or as a substitute for tapioca pearls in bubble tea. When dried, the seeds are known as the spice “anardana.”
Other common culinary uses to experiment with include infusing the fruit in liqueurs, beer, wine, tea, ice cream, smoothies, and chocolate. You can also turn the juice into jelly, sauce, or molasses, or make it into a frozen concentrate. And, of course, well-known pomegranate grenadine syrup is always a hit.
Benjamin Whitacre is an experienced gardener and writer who grows pomegranates in his Zone 7a garden in central Virginia.